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The Making of a SUP Instructor

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When I was 13, my dream career was to work as a ski patroller in the winter and teach sailboarding at a Club Med in the summer (this was 1978). I thought this setup would be really fun and get me a lot of girls. As I got older this epic dream faded away.

I also loved to draw so I studied graphic design and went to work in the creative field. First as a graphic designer then an advertising agency art director and for the past 22 years a motion graphics designer. While this career has been extremely satisfying (and challenging) I still longed to do something outside and active. The sad fact of working in post production, visual effects and the motion graphics fields is that you are required to sit in a dark room for 10-12+ hours a day, staring at a computer monitor trying create something compelling. While it’s a lot of fun creating motion graphics, the bottom line is the work I do is sometimes used to sell video games, TV shows, soda and a lot of stuff people don’t really need. It sounds corny but I wanted my work to affect people in a positive way. I’m sure a lot of people in advertising go through a similar thing.

Outdoor School Classes at REI

While I was cruising around the REI site looking at all the new gear and planning how I’m going to spend my dividend check I stumbled upon the Outdoor School classes page. I was surprised to see that they were holding a two-day SUP instructor class nearby in Marina del Rey. I’ve been doing SUP surfing and racing for a few years and never thought of being an instructor but something told me I should sign up for it. I thought I could teach my friends and maybe do a class for our Boy Scout Troop. My gut was telling me to just sign up and give it a shot. Why not?

Photo, Shannon Sturges

On the first day of class I met our instructor Jose and the other two students (Amber and Gavin). They both worked for REI as Outdoor School instructors and they were taking this class to get their ACA (American Canoe and Kayak Association)  Level 1 SUP instructor certification. Jose started, not by jumping right into the mechanics of SUP technique, but discussing the process of how people learned a new skill and the different ways of teaching.

This was all new material to me and I was interested in learning more about this topic.  He then got into breaking down the specific SUP strokes and rescue techniques. I thought that I would have this beginning part down but I quickly learned that there is more to paddling a SUP than going straight. After two fun and intensive days I passed my final exam and was now an ACA Certified Level 1 SUP instructor. The wheels in my head were turning now thinking this might be a fun thing to actually do on the weekends. Amber is a Sr. Instructor for REI Outdoor School and I asked her if an old guy like me could work for REI teaching SUP. She said “heck yea” and encouraged me to apply online; two months, a couple of interviews and DMV physical later I was hired as an REI Outdoor School Instructor.

The Joy of Teaching

That was over a year ago now and in addition to teaching SUP I also teach: kayaking, mountain biking, road cycling, trail running, map & compass and GPS navigation, and camping skills. I tell people that it’s basically Boy Scouts for adults. Even though I have a lot of experience doing most of these sports it’s an entirely different thing breaking the skills down to the simplest form for a beginner to understand. In turn, teaching SUP has been very beneficial to my own SUP skillset. I know my students are watching me closely so I need to “model” the perfect stroke or maneuver.

On the water in Marina del Rey. Photo, Shannon Sturges

Shannon Sturges

I have to admit that at some point during the intro class I’ll start doing pivot (buoy) turns even though this is not in the curriculum. I tell them that this is the progression of making turns from the middle of the board. If the students are getting the basic strokes I’ll sometimes show them how to buoy turn at end of class. If the students have yet to fall in the water by this time they will now. Watching my students challenge themselves and fall in the water while having fun is the best.

I also enjoy the challenge of learning to master a new skill like kayaking or GPS navigation. This can be frustrating but it also helps me empathize with my students that are learning a new skill. I’m the first to admit that I still have a lot to learn about teaching and sometimes I get things wrong. But I do subscribe to something I heard a hero of mine, Bear Grylls, say “What I lack in skill I make up with enthusiasm.” I’m sure Bear was not the first to say that but it’s a great attitude when teaching outdoor skills.

By now I’ve taught hundreds of beginners how to stand up paddle. I get such a charge when after a two-hour class my students are paddling around having a great time. I really enjoy taking my students for a short paddle down the channel and getting to know their story.

Recently I was paddling with a student who broke into tears telling me how learning to stand up paddle was on her bucket list of things to do when she lost over 100lbs. To me it’s just another class, but I need to remember that for many of my students it’s huge accomplishment just to get out on the water and learn how to paddle.

Many times students are so excited at the end of class they want to go buy or rent a board right away so they can go paddling the next weekend. REI offers an ocean SUP tour from Cabrillo Beach that we take students out through the surf zone (conditions permitting) and then a paddle through the kelp beds off Palos Verdes. Many times this winter we were greeted by dolphin pods and breaching whales. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday morning.

Making motion graphics for commercials is fun (and pays well) but I get so much more satisfaction helping someone discover the joys of SUP. As dream careers go, I wonder what my 13-year-old self would think. I get to wear board shorts and teach people how to have fun on the water and I did get the girl (my beautiful wife of 23 years). Yeah, he’d approve.

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